WP Comments on Judicial Elections, Religion in Politics, the Energy Independence Sham, and the Link Between Crime and Lead Exposure

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

gasoline lead crime


In It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World, Nick Kristof celebrates the fact that humans have gotten more intelligent over the past century.  In response to Mr. Kristof’s reference to the removal of lead from gasoline playing a role in such increase in intelligence, Winning Progressive explained that the removal of lead from gasoline and paint is also credited with helping to significantly reduce crime over the past few decades”

I was glad to see you identify the removal of lead from gasoline, which occurred only thanks to the strong advocacy of environmentalists, public health professionals, consumer safety groups, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, as playing a role in increasing levels of intelligence.

A growing body of science shows that the removal of lead from gasoline and the removal of lead paint from houses has also played a key role in the dramatic drop in crime that has occurred throughout the US over the past 30 years.

Lead is a neurotoxin that damages or hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which provides humans with impulse control. When that area of the brain is damaged or underdeveloped, people become more aggressive and impulsive. By reducing lead exposure, we’ve reduced such prefrontal cortex damage and, according to a number of convincing studies, helped create the 30-70% drops in crime experienced throughout the country.

Of course, more work remains to be done as many houses, especially in older and poorer neighborhoods throughout the country, still have lead paint that is impairing childrens’ development. Every dollar spent on lead paint removal is estimated to save $17 to $221 in societal costs. But the fiscal scolds have succeeded in slashing the CDCs lead paint prevention budget from $29 million to $2 million for 2013.

In Social Science Palooza III, David Brooks provided a seemingly random sampling of the findings of recent social science research.   Winning Progressive commented on one such study, which found that state court judges in Washington State hand out harsher sentences in criminal cases as the judges get closer to election day:

Evidence that judges hand out harsher sentences around election time provide yet another reason why judges should be appointed, not elected.

The election of judges undermines the judiciary and our system of government in two ways. The first is that, in our system of checks and balances, the judiciary is supposed to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. One of the critical checks that the judiciary provides is making sure that the other two branches do not unjustly trample the rights of groups that are not in the majority. But if judges are elected, they become just as susceptible to majority will as the executive and legislative branches are and, therefore, judicial protection of the minority becomes largely a non-starter.

Secondly, courts lack any real enforcement power for their rulings, except what comes from the moral authority they gain from being seen as independent and neutral arbiters of the law. But if judges are ruling with an eye out for their next election, they aren’t engaging in such neutral enforcement of the law and their credibility goes out the window.

While our federal court system, with its lifetime appointments, is far from perfect (see, for example, Bush v. Gore), it is widely understood to be a fairer and more professional forum than state courts. And part of the reason is that most state court judges are worried about re-election.

In The God Glut, Frank Bruni interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey, who is a rare agnostic public official, and addressed  concerns about increasing officially sanctioned religious proselytizing at the West Point military academy, as reported by former West Point cadet Blake Page.  Winning Progressive offered some thoughts on the role of religious belief in politics:

I am a technical agnostic (I don’t think there is a god, but I don’t have enough faith to be able to definitively say that there absolutely is not a god), but I readily acknowledge that religious belief does and should play a role in politics for many people.

For example, religious belief has always been a prime motivator of the civil rights movement, the social justice work of people like Dorothy Day, and of groups opposed to war and the death penalty. In many, many areas, religious belief has been a force for social good. I am motivated by secular humanistic values, but if other people are motivated by religious belief to help society, that’s great.

Where problems arise is when people try to use politics to impose their religious beliefs to limit the rights of others, whether it is on issues of choice, marriage equality, or access to contraception. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, then don’t have one, but don’t try to use the power of the state to prevent other people from having them.

And certainly we shouldn’t be using government to indoctrinate people in religious faith. That is especially so when it comes to the military. History has shown us time and time again that the combination of religion with military power is a dangerous mixture. Let’s make sure we don’t go any further down that road here.

In American Bull, Roger Cohen offers a significantly misguided argument that increased domestic natural gas and oil production will create energy independence for the US that will lead to a geostrategic shift by ending the “political dependency and expediency” that results from our reliance on Middle East oil.  Winning Progressive responded as follows:

Mr. Cohen, I hate to rain on your parade, but this whole energy independence thing is mostly a sham.

For one thing, we are not nearly as directly reliant on oil from the Persian Gulf as people think. 38% of our oil already comes from the US. Another 20% comes from Canada, and 7.5% comes from Mexico. That’s 65% that comes from North America, compared to only about 12% that comes from the Persian Gulf. So, it is hard to see how increasing the portion that comes from the US to 50% would lead to any major change.

Second, with regards to price and the need to stay involved in the Middle East, it doesn’t matter all that much where we get our oil from because the oil market is an international one. As such, major changes in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere will impact our oil prices even if we aren’t purchasing directly from countries there.

Finally, what we need to be focused on is reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels regardless of whether it is domestic or foreign. If we achieve “energy independence” simply by drilling, fracking, and mining more, the impact on the climate and the environment will be disastrous. Instead, we need to be prioritizing efficiency, and the development or renewable sources of energy. If we don’t, any energy independence “victory” will be hollow and short-lived.


Weekend Reading List

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list we have articles on the Obama vs. Romney Supreme Court, True the Vote, rebuilding the middle class, guns and reducing crime in big cities, and dealing with climate change.


An Obama Supreme Court Versus a Romney High Court – a report evaluating the potential impacts of November’s Presidential election on the future of the Supreme Court and the critical economic and social issues that the Court will likely face over the next years and decades.

A Reading Guide to True the Vote - an overview and collection of articles about True the Vote, the right-wing, tea party aligned organization that is promising to have 1 million poll watchers interfering with people’s right to vote this November.

10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class For Hardworking Americans – a report on raising the minimum wage, protecting union rights, stopping wage theft, making workplaces family friendly, and other steps that are key to restoring the middle class in the US.

Our Romance With Guns – a review of three books discussing our nation’s obsessions with guns and and the strategies that cities have taken to reduce gun violence.

In a Climate-Crazed World, How Can We Plan for the Future? – an essay about the challenges of taking action today to address future problems, such as climate change, that have uncertain ramifications, timing, etc.


Texas A&M Study Finds ‘Stand Your Ground’ Means More Homicides

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

Florida state representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) sponsored the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that drew national attention after self-styled neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In March he defended the law on the Lehrer News Hour, claiming it had “saved thousands of lives.”

Representative Baxley offered no evidence to back up his claim, and a new study by Texas A&M economists Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra suggests Rep. Baxley won’t offer evidence anytime soon. Professors Cheng and Hoekstra compared crime statistics in states that had adopted ‘Stand Your Ground’ (SYG) laws, to those of states with previously similar crime statistics that had not adopted SYG laws.

Note: The study’s authors refer to these as “castle doctrine laws.” However the castle doctrine protected the right of self-defense in one’s own home, with no duty to retreat, long before SYG laws were proposed. SYG laws removed the duty to retreat from confrontations outside the home. I have replaced their references to “castle doctrine” with [SYG].

Their conclusion is disturbing (boldface added):

In recent years, more than 20 states have strengthened their self-defense laws by adopting [SYG] laws. These statutes widen the scope for the justified use of lethal force in self-defense by stating the circumstances under which self-defense is justified and removing the duty to retreat from a list of protected places outside the home. In addition, in some cases they establish a presumption of reasonableness and remove civil liability. Thus, these laws could hypothetically deter crime or, alternatively, escalate violence. To our knowledge, this is the first paper to examine empirically which of these possibilities, if any, is true.

The Palm Beach Post op-ed linked above also noted that Rep. Baxley offered no evidence – when he proposed Florida’s SYG law in 2005 – that Floridians had been wrongfully prosecuted after legitimate self-defense situations. The Florida Legislature simply accepted his claim that such wrongful prosecutions could happen, and his argument that SYG would both prevent those wrongful prosecutions and deter would-be criminals. Oops….

We find no evidence that [SYG] law deters crime. Furthermore, our estimates are sufficiently precise as to rule out moderate-sized deterrence effects. Thus, while our view is that it is a priori reasonable to expect that strengthening self-defense law would deter crime, we find this is not the case.

The authors examined crime rates for burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault – crimes one might reasonably expect SYG to deter – in similar states with-and-without SYG, and within states before-and-after SYG laws were enacted. They found no significant difference in the rates of these crimes.

We find suggestive but inconclusive evidence that these laws increase justifiable homicide by private citizens. However, the absolute impact of even the largest and most statistically significant estimates is quite small, given how few homicides are classified in this way. Our estimates suggest the laws cause at most 50 additional justifiable homicides per year across all 23 states that adopted [SYG].

More significantly, results indicate that [SYG] laws increase total homicides by 7 to 9 percent. Put differently, the laws induce an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year across the 23 states in our sample that enacted [SYG] laws. This finding is robust to a wide set of difference-in-differences specifications, including region-by-year fixed effects, state-specific linear time trends, and controls for time-varying factors such as economic conditions and policing and incarceration rates. These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it.

The additional homicides induced by [SYG] could be due to victims practicing self-defense under the terms of the new law, an increased propensity by criminals to use lethal force when committing crimes or encountering resistance, the escalation of other conflicts, or some combination of the above. While we would expect different analysts to weight homicides from these situations differently, it is clear that the primary impact of these laws, beyond giving potential victims additional scope to protect themselves, is to increase the loss of human life. Thus, in light of our findings, our view is that an informed debate over these laws will weigh the increased protection offered to law-abiding citizens against the increase in homicide that results from the laws.

The evidence shows that SYG laws have not “saved thousands of lives.” Quite the contrary, SYG laws have resulted in thousands more deaths. If state legislators care about evidence, and not simply NRA rhetoric, they should start to save lives … by ending the bloody experiment called ‘Stand Your Ground.’

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))


Police Needlessly Kill Drug Addict in Utah – Another Day in the Failed War on Drugs

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

We here at Winning Progressive have long believed that the war on drugs is a horrible nightmare that has done little to stem drug use in America while wasting vast resources on incarceration, leading to problematic curbs of our civil liberties, and having a horribly destructive impact on African Americans and other people of color.   This is ground that has been very well covered by others, so for the basics on the absurdity of the war on drugs, we’d recommend reading the following:

Smoke and Horrors, by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, which focuses on the racial disparities in arrests and sentencing for marijuana possession

War on Drugs: $1 Trillion Wasted  – Nothing Accomplished, a blog post by Ted McLaughlin at Best of the Blogs about how we’ve spent more than $1 trillion on the war on drugs over the past 40 years, but have only made the drug problem worse, not better

Let’s Stop Both Wars – by redwagon at Booman Tribune – an overview of the impacts of the drug war on African American families

What compelled us to write about the war on drugs right now is this truly sickening video of a police raid on the house of Todd Blair, an apparent meth addict in Utah who was believed to have a small amount of drugs in his possession.  In essence, 10 heavily armed police officers busted down the door to Mr. Blair’s house in the middle of the night, hearing someone break in Mr. Blair came out of his bedroom brandishing a golf club, and the police immediately and fatally shot him three times.  (Warning, the video is quite disturbing):

This video is a graphic example of how militarized our police forces have become and how we are increasingly giving up basic civil liberties in the name of fighting an unsuccessful war against drugs.  There is no dispute that Mr. Blair was a drug addict who had a history of arrests and convictions for drug possession.  But there is little to no evidence that he was a major or dangerous drug dealer (which is what led the police to have a no-knock warrant that allows them to enter a person’s house without knocking), that he had committed any violent crime, or that police could not have subdued Mr. Blair without fatally shooting him three times.

There is no dispute that drug addiction is a serious problem and there is no perfect solution to the drug issue.  But it also seems indisputable that the war on drugs has been an economically and socially costly mistake.  A new approach is needed, involving decriminalization combined with increased funding for drug addiction treatment and education to keep people from becoming addicted to begin with.  Such an approach has been largely successful in Portugal over the past nine years, and holds great promise for better outcomes here in the U.S.

The main hurdle to stopping the drug war is the fear that politicians have of a great public backlash from appearing “soft on crime.”  Therefore, it is critical that we make our voices heard in favor of a more sensible approach to drugs that focuses on decriminalization, treatment, and education rather than police and prisons.  If you’d like your voice to be heard on this issue, write a letter to your local newspaper editor about the Todd Blair case or other problems with the war on drugs.  Here are links for submitting letters to the editor for national papers, and to newspapers in Connecticut, DelawareIllinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

Make Calls Now to End the Death Penalty in Illinois

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Legislation that would abolish the death penalty in Illinois is now sitting on Govenor Pat Quinn’s desk, after the Illinois Senate voted 32-25 to make Illinois the 16th state to ban the death penalty.  Governor Quinn is apparenlty undecided on whether to sign the legislation, so contact him now online or by phone at 217-782-0244 or 312-814-2121 and ask him to end the ineffective, biased, costly, and barbaric practice that is the death penalty in Illinois. 

Below is an updated version of the post from last week that includes information and talking points about why the death penalty should be abolished. 

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The National Coalition to End the Death Penalty has a great overview of the top ten reasons to abolish the death penalty.  The short summary is that the death penalty is barbaric, ineffective, biased, and costly.  The evidence shows that the death penalty costs taxpayers more than life in prison without parole,  does not deter violent crime, and is marred by significant racial bias and far too frequent ineffective legal representation for those who are charged with capital crimes.   Since 1973, at least 138 people have been released from death row after being proven innocent, and there are at least 23 cases in the last century of people who have been killed by the death penalty but are now believed to be innocent of the crimes they were killed for.

Thirty five states and the federal government currently have the death penalty.  And of those states, Illinois is perhaps the poster child for both how flawed the death penalty is and the impossibility of fixing it is.  As the Chicago Tribune explained in a recent editorial urging abolition:

Lawmakers have had 10 years to reflect — and act — on the failures of a system that sent at least 20 innocent men to death row. Illinois hasn’t executed an inmate since 1999, the year before then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium that continues to this day.

Three years later, Ryan emptied the state’s death row, commuting the sentences of 167 condemned inmates and pardoning four others.

But the system isn’t fixed. Far from it. A flurry of reforms were enacted: The Illinois Supreme Court set minimum standards for attorneys in capital cases and mandated more training for judges. The General Assembly passed a law requiring homicide interrogations to be recorded, to guard against coerced confessions, and created the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to ensure that death penalty trials aren’t compromised for lack of resources.

But lawmakers haven’t taken steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied evenly across geographic or demographic lines, or to prevent wrongful convictions based on errant identifications by witnesses or mistakes at forensic labs. An unintended consequence of the moratorium is that there is less pressure to finish that job. We’re not executing anyone, the reasoning goes, so what’s the harm?

Plenty. Prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty; they may in fact be more likely to do so in marginal cases so they can tap into the trust fund to pay for the trial. Statewide, there have been more than 500 capital cases since the moratorium began. Those cases — typically twice as expensive as noncapital cases — have cost taxpayers more than $100 million and sent 15 prisoners to death row.

Because of these significant flaws with the death penalty, there has been a growing trend of moving away from the death penalty.  Since 2007, three states – New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York – have abolished the death penalty.  And now we have a chance to continue that trend in Illinois.  Now is the time to act to get another state to abolish the death penalty.